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VOL. 130 | NO. 104 | Friday, May 29, 2015

Hopson, Barbic Look Ahead to New School Year

By Bill Dries

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Dorsey Hopson and Chris Barbic are comparing notes on the new school year that begins in August, the first in three years in which the structure of public education in Shelby County essentially will remain the same.

HOPSON

But one difference will be the count of schools in the state-run ASD, where Barbic is superintendent, and the number of Innovation Zone Schools in the Shelby County Schools system, where Hopson is superintendent.

Both sets of schools specifically address the bottom five percent statewide in terms of student achievement, and most of the schools are in Memphis.

The ASD adds five local schools for a total of 27. The I-Zone schools will number 19, adding two from the school year that just ended.

BARBIC

Hopson and Barbic both admit the two sets of schools, aided by extra state funds that are about to run out, compete to improve results for their students.

Barbic praised the I-Zone schools as an example of “what can happen when you aggregate talent in one school.”

“They’ve taken the best performing teachers and leaders and they’ve concentrated them in the schools of highest need,” he said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines. “I think traditionally what happens in a lot of districts is your highest performing teachers, the minute they can – they run to an easier school, out in the burbs where it’s a much easier job.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, airs Friday at 7 p.m. on WKNO and again Sunday at 8:30 a.m.

Hopson hopes to have more time for professional development across the two staffs. And he acknowledges the conversations he and Barbic have don’t always end in agreement. They also involve the frustrations of trying to reverse student-achievement declines that happened over a long period of neglect.

“I think the good part about this situation is it does create good competition,” he said, citing 5,000 fewer local children in failing schools since the two sets began two years ago. “This bold approach, while it’s uncomfortable and causes tension, I think in the long run it will be best for kids.”

Melrose High School was once on the Achievement School District’s short list for a possible takeover, something Barbic has the power to do even if Hopson disagrees. Hopson talked about the legacy of what is Orange Mound’s high school.

“He didn’t stand down and say, ‘Okay,’” Hopson said of Barbic. “He said, ‘Give me a better plan.’ So we made Melrose an I-Zone school.”

Barbic says there are “early signs of success” for both sets of schools after two school years.

Meanwhile, Hopson said the school system’s liability for health and insurance benefits for employees and retirees is one of the ironies of the public education demerger in Shelby County.

The terms of the negotiated split into seven public school districts within Shelby County left the liability for retirees in the six suburban school districts with Shelby County Schools – an estimated $400 million of the $1.4 billion liability.

Shelby County commissioners appear to be on their way to approving $7.9 million in new funding for SCS – out of $10 million total for all seven school districts – with the suggestion that the school system use the new funding to put toward the unfunded liability.

“It’s ironic that we would be given money to pay the OPEB (other post employment benefits liability) down,” Hopson said. “The suburban schools would also get more money too. But they don’t have OPEB liability. And then we have the highest-need kids.”

The county commission doesn’t have line-item control over the school system’s budget. And Hopson, with backing from the school board, sought $14 million in new county funding for a list of 15 line items including new teachers, guidance counselors and social workers.

Commissioners suggested the school system use its reserve of more than $100 million to fund those items.

Hopson said the school system will wait to see what the commission approves as a final budget amount.

There are other elements to consider in the decision. There is always the possibility of ongoing talks between individual commissioners and the school system.

Several county commissioners have indicated if the system accepts the new funding for its OPEB liability, the commission likely would back the move to join a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee over its funding of public education.

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